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Their intense collaboration has seen Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine commingle the sacred and profane. By Shaad D’Souza.

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine

Sufjan Stevens (left) and Angelo De Augustine.
Credit: Artwork by Daniel Anum Jasper

In her hugely popular and oft-derided self-help book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron – a novelist, playwright, songwriter, poet and sometime life coach – suggests that making art is one of our truest forms of communion with God. “Making our art, we meet firsthand the hand of our Creator,” she writes. If we ourselves are creations, she asks, what’s more spiritual than undertaking the act of creation ourselves?

A dialogue between creator and creation takes place on “Cimmerian Shade”, a highlight of A Beginner’s Mind, the new collaborative record by Sufjan Stevens and singer-songwriter Angelo De Augustine. Inhabiting the character of Buffalo Bill, the infamous antagonist of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, Stevens and De Augustine sing, atop piano and gently finger-picking guitar, in unison:

Safe in my autogynephilia

One black witch moth, now she’s lost in the meadow

I just want you to love me

I just wanted to change myself

Fix it all, Jonathan Demme

“We enjoy the duality of camp versus highbrow art – I like that tension,” De Augustine tells me over a scratchy, insecure phone connection from Los Angeles, where he lives. “It’s our job to dig through that, and that’s life every day,” adds Stevens, dialling in, clear as a bell, from his home in upstate New York. “It’s like, I could be reading Dostoyevsky, but I’m also going through Taco Bell drive-through at the same time … We didn’t want to take anything too seriously, because we’re both so dead serious in our work.”

The song refers to both Bill’s filmic creator, the director Demme, and Bill’s creation: a grotesque, “autogynephili[c]” suit of human skin for him to wear. The portrait of Bill in The Silence of the Lambs is widely seen as offensive and two-dimensional; in Stevens and De Augustine’s telling, that tension is rendered as a kind of musical fanfiction – Bill as a person in search of meaning, attempting to find communion with his creator through an artistic work of his own.

A little off-colour? Sure – but Stevens and De Augustine share something of a penchant for collisions of the beautiful and the putrid. A Beginner’s Mind is a record that revels in clashes of taste, spirit and style. Spanning 14 songs inspired by 14 specific films ranging from the highbrow and critically acclaimed to the lurid and lowbrow, it’s a record that uses its potentially facile concept to get close to questions Stevens and De Augustine have been attempting to answer in their respective careers: What does it mean to strive and to suffer, to love and to lose, to believe and to doubt? The album finds its answers in scintillating, delicately indelicate culture clashes such as that of “Cimmerian Shade”, where pieces of steadfast iconography are reanimated in order to tell an entirely different story.

Although I doubt Stevens or De Augustine has undertaken the course outlined in The Artist’s Way, A Beginner’s Mind seems to embody its central tenets – the idea that creativity is a potent life force, something interactive and ever-present. “Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as the creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist,” Cameron writes. “Creativity is ... a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity.”

It’s a philosophy that feels especially true of Stevens’ work. Since he first emerged about 20 years ago, the Detroit, Michigan-born songwriter and producer has been in dogged pursuit of higher creativity, higher divinity, the highest understanding. With an intense, otherworldly presence and wavering falsetto, he mainlines the most inalienably human of feelings into art. A devout Christian, faith has always been present in his lyrics – his 2004 record Seven Swans notably translates biblical stories into delicate folksong – but the ambition and musical scope of his 12-odd studio albums suggests a kind of Cameron-ian quest for greater and greater creativity. Since the late 1990s, Stevens has put to tape, among other things: indie-rock landmarks including 2005’s Illinois and 2015’s Carrie & Lowell; the pop-classical concept record Planetarium; the unkempt, glitchy electronic records The Age of Adz and The Ascension; and, earlier this year, a five-volume, 150-minute album of New Age music titled Convocations. Some artists may chisel away at a sound for years, but Stevens’ career is marked by such insistent leaps from style to style that lead you to wonder if creativity itself is the goal.

Stevens and De Augustine refer to themselves as “we” throughout our conversation, in part because A Beginner’s Mind is true collaboration – of the sitting in a room and nutting it out, finishing each other’s sentences kind – but also because they share such a sensibility that allows them to make judgements on the other’s likes and dislikes, processes and past projects.

De Augustine’s songs, sung in a hushed falsetto and unfussily baroque, could pass as early Stevens recordings and the pair share, according to De Augustine, a love of songwriting: “We both really love words, we both really love melody and chord progressions.” De Augustine is nearly 20 years younger than 46-year-old Stevens, and the pair are clearly kindred spirits who have a kind of avuncular, mentor–protégé relationship.

Throughout our conversation, Stevens lobs friendly wisecracks at De Augustine: “We met on Grindr!” he jokes, hastily adding a perfunctory, “Sorry, Angelo, that’s not true”, when I ask how the pair met. “Did you grow up in, like, a fundamentalist Christian household, where rock music was considered satanic?” he asks De Augustine. “God, you’re so old-school, Angelo!” he laughs, when De Augustine refers to an early album recorded to four-track reel-to-reel tape.

In truth, De Augustine and Stevens were introduced through a mutual friend, the songwriter Denison Witmer, about the time De Augustine recorded his second album, 2017’s Swim Inside the Moon. Neither musician was familiar with the other’s work; although De Augustine was high-school aged when Stevens was coming to prominence, he was raised by professional musicians who preferred silence in the house. Stevens was taken by Swim Inside the Moon and signed De Augustine to his label, Asthmatic Kitty Records.

De Augustine was – and, from the evidence of our conversation, still is – fairly tech averse, using what Stevens calls a “shitty flip phone” around the time they met. Stevens gave him his first computer. Later, the pair worked together on De Augustine’s single “Santa Barbara”, which led to a month-long “sabbatical” at a friend’s studio and cabin in upstate New York.

“It was a very lived-in, immersive experience. There was nothing else to do [but make music]. If we didn’t write a song, it was our fault, [and] if we weren’t writing a song, we were, like, going on a hike or something,” says Stevens. He and De Augustine cooked together, wrote music and watched films together in the evening, giving each other space during the day.

For both De Augustine and Stevens, the experience was illuminating: before A Beginner’s Mind, neither artist had collaborated with another artist in this way. “Up until this point, I had never written a song with anyone else before,” says De Augustine. “That was really exciting for me to work with somebody else in terms of writing something, because I’m so used to just doing everything on my own with writing.” Adds Stevens: “I’ve collaborated a lot with people but usually the jobs are very clearly defined, whereas this was like – we’re both gonna write the melodies, we’re both gonna write the songs, we’re both gonna write the lyrics.”

You can hear the fluidity of their working environment in the songs themselves, which are looser and freer than much of Stevens’ latest work, eschewing the mechanical harshness of 2020’s The Ascension for warmer songs such as those of De Augustine’s 2019 album Tomb – tracks that unravel and gently fray, homemade folk records embellished with bells and analog synths. “Back To Oz”, one of the set’s highlights, builds into a messy, sinewy jam, musical ideas toppling out like marbles from an upturned jar, while “It’s Your Own Body and Mind” draws a soaring, lo-fi ode to bodily autonomy from Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Stevens’ music has been unfairly and, in my opinion, often untruthfully classed as twee, but “It’s Your Own Body and Mind” is actually twee, and gleefully, wonderfully so.

Although these songs may have been written from a loose brief, Stevens stresses that there’s little material difference between a song about his own life and one written from an outside stimulus. “It’s not like we’re corporate pop songwriters, writing hits – our histories and our work have set a very obvious precedent of how we work. There’s a conscientiousness and a commitment to the work and to the music, and we’re not doing anything flippantly,” he says.

“I mean, I hope that my music doesn’t come off that way, whether I’m writing a song about my dead mother or a song about a horror film, it’s like, in each case, I am totally showing up for work, and I’m fully committed, and I’m writing from the heart, and I’m writing with full conviction and respect not just for the source material, but for like, the process and the work itself. It doesn’t matter if we’re singing a song about a movie about cheerleading or singing a song about a failed relationship, or love, or whatever, it’s like, we’re fully there, and we’re fully committed, and we’re trying to be very coherent and responsible stewards of ourselves and our persons and our histories and be true and be loving and empathetic. I think that’s what we really want.”

Stevens also seems intent on having A Beginner’s Mind speak for itself. From the outset of our conversation, Stevens is, if not outright combative, at the very least a little bitchy – a chaotic counterpoint to De Augustine’s shy, almost monastic presence. He often responds to questions with questions of his own, attempting to sideline questions he views as perfunctory, at one point making a joke about my “shitty job”, at another muttering, “Ugh, these questions!” Early in our conversation, he asks: “I have so many records, are you familiar with all of them?”, letting out a chilly, Miranda Priestly-ish “okay” when I say that I am.

There is something enjoyably old-fashioned about the idea of Stevens as a cagey, playfully antagonistic subject. He is uniquely resistant to – or, probably more accurately, bored by – the idea of interpreting or discussing his own work. He shows the most interest when I ask him about Oblique Strategies, the set of creativity prompts designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, which he says he references every day, and the I Ching, a Chinese divination text he and De Augustine used when faced with creative blocks. More than anything, processes such as Oblique Strategies and the I Ching emphasise the randomness and uncertainty that both De Augustine and Stevens see as essential to the creation of art, and to the creation of a record such as A Beginner’s Mind.

“Sometimes you just get lucky – you might write a song in 10 minutes, and it just all comes to you at once, or you might labour over a song for years,” says De Augustine.

Stevens describes the randomness of art as “so important”.

“I wrote [the 2005 hit] ‘Chicago’ in an afternoon – it was kind of meaningless to me in terms of the investment of time and experience, but that has no relevance to its value,” he says. “I think it’s kind of pretty random, which I think is awesome.

“I think it’s important to understand that life and work is a long haul, and it’s okay to be painstaking and suffer through things and struggle – that’s just part of our work. Sometimes you get lucky, and magic can happen in a moment.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Finding the magic".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.